Family of Kidnapped Armenian Woman Devastated After Failed Negotiations
Maral Najarian, a civilian war hostage falsely imprisoned by the Azerbaijan government, was expected to be reunited with her family. She had only 48 hours left until freedom. More than two weeks later, she still waits.
It was the closest the 49-year old Lebanese-Armenian had gotten to being released after spending nearly four months in captivity. According to her sister Sossy Seferian, the family was told her anticipated release date was February 14, but Najarian is still held prisoner in a high security prison near Baku. She was kidnapped in Berdzor on the way to collect her personal belongings on November 10, 2020, the same day a trilateral ceasefire agreement was signed ending the second Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) war.
When Najarian’s family hadn’t received official word of her release after two days, they assumed an unforeseen matter was causing the delay. Although acknowledging it wasn’t guaranteed and despite having reservations about trusting Azerbaijan, all remained hopeful she would be back home safe. No official explanation has been provided yet to the family on why Azerbaijan rejected negotiations for her return.
“I wish we can see her face and to hear her voice. I just want this nightmare over and she finally comes home safe.”
~ Sossy Seferian, Maral’s sister
Seferian, who works as a Practical Nurse for a Beirut hospital in Lebanon, said she was devastated about the outcome. “We waited for one week and I thought Maral will finally come home. It is starting to have psychological effects. Every day, we try to get information from the government, but they tell us to wait and that someone will let us know if anything happens. No matter what, we are not losing hope she will be freed.”
Since Najarian is a dual citizen of Lebanon and Armenia, the Lebanese ARF Central Committee started working with foreign ambassadors to secure her return home. The Lebanese government only recently began to ramp up its efforts following multiple requests from her family for assistance. At that point, ARF Lebanon Central Committee’s Deputy/MP Hagop Pakradounian and Lebanese Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe were asked by their government to help facilitate negotiations with the assistance of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Both delegates arranged week-long meetings in Beirut including with the Ambassador of Azerbaijan Aghasalim Shukurov to discuss her case. Other delegates present at the meetings were Ambassador of Iran Jalal Firouz Nia, Ambassador of Russia Zasykin Alexander and Ambassador of Armenia Vahagn Atabekyan.
Earlier this week, Armenian Politician and MP Naira Zohrabyan, confirmed she was in Moscow and met with Russian officials to discuss the more than 250 Armenian civilian prisoners of war, who were taken hostage after the brokered ceasefire agreement. Zohrabyan, a former Chair Member of the Standing Committee on Human Rights in Armenia, emphasized there is no validity to Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev’s recent accusations calling the Armenian prisoners of war “terrorists and saboteurs”. She also assured there are ongoing efforts being made to bring the Armenian hostages home.
Seferian and her family have been working tirelessly on raising awareness about Maral’s case along with help from the public. They are hoping for more transparency and communication from the Armenian government. They had also accused both Armenian and Lebanese authorities of not doing enough to help.
“I can’t say what obvious work is being done by the Armenian government, but there are those in Armenia including myself, who are working together,” she said.  Members from the Path of Law (Iravakan Oughi), a human rights NGO founded in 2019 and Armenia’s Representative for the European Court of Human Rights (ECRH) Yeghishe Kirakosyan are among those coordinating release efforts.
On February 12, the ICRC with the assistance of Russian mediation, was granted the opportunity to visit Najarian at the Gobustan high security prison 70 km from Baku, the first time anyone else was allowed to see her. She gave the ICRC representative a letter for her family, which was immediately confiscated by Azerbaijan authorities for review. In the interim, the ICRC contacted her relatives informing them her condition was well, although there is no official document to prove a physician evaluation was conducted at that time or since her captivity.
Seferian confirmed they finally received Maral’s letter on February 23, addressed to her mother and two children, where she wrote she is being treated well, writing from Azerbaijan and hopes to be reunited with everyone again soon. She also said her family sent out three letters to Maral earlier this week and hopes she receives them.
“I still don’t know if she is okay or not but I’m happy we heard from her,” she said. “All Maral wanted was to make a better life for her and her family. I wish we can see her face and to hear her voice. I just want this nightmare over and she finally comes home safe.”
Gobustan prison is reportedly known for holding many political prisoners, although Najarian is not a politician or an activist. On May 27, 2020, Amnesty International released a public statement demanding Azerbaijani authorities halt further politically motivated incarcerations. The statement also specified growing concerns of the prison becoming a hot spot for the spread of Covid-19 due to its poor conditions.
On September 27, 2020, Azerbaijan launched a full-scale attack on Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh). The six-week intense war ended with a Russian-brokered trilateral ceasefire agreement signed on November 10. On the same day, Maral Najarian and her friend Viken Euljekjian, a fellow Lebanese-Armenian, headed towards Shushi to retrieve their belongings when they were kidnapped in Berdzor by Azerbaijani armed forces. The peace deal was also to secure safe passage into these areas newly occupied by Azerbaijan for those needing to collect their belongings.
Azerbaijan has reportedly stated that Euljekjian and Najarian are in an “unofficial marriage” but according to her family Najarian’s only husband passed away in 2016 when the couple had already divorced. They had two children together. Other recent reports from Azerbaijan also accused Najarian of being a sniper, which has been refuted by Armenian officials.
“Concerning Maral, unfortunately Azerbaijan is associating her case with her friend [Euljekjian] who they are accusing of being a terrorist and in that context, they have started an investigation to understand, in their opinion of course, what her ties are with her friend relating to a ‘subversion group’ or diversion operations claimed by Azerbaijan. This is absolute nonsense and it is obvious Maral has no connection to any of that and should be returned as soon as possible,” Zohrabyan said. 
Concerns Surrounding False News About Najarian’s Case
Seferian said her mother suffered a heart attack after her blood pressure spiked immediately after hearing a rumor circulated in Lebanon that Maral was in a psychiatric hospital undergoing observation and she could not remember anyone. Her mother has been released from the hospital and recovering at home. It is unclear how or where the rumors started.
When rumors that Najarian was already released flooded news and social media networks, the Azerbaijan news agency Azvision.az issued a report that the information was false. Najarian’s sister said she is concerned this type of “fake news” or any type of unofficial statement will ultimately work against efforts to help her.
Family Alarmed After Receiving Disturbing Facebook Messages
On November 24, exactly two weeks after Najarian had gone missing, the family noticed her Facebook account messenger was online. Her nephew Hovig Seferian said he then called the line, but whoever answered the phone quickly hung up.
“Someone started writing Azerbaijani and said my aunt was with him. I know how to speak Turkish, so I started to talk to him,” said Hovig Seferian, who also recently relocated to Armenia from Lebanon with his family.
Screenshots of the chats were obtained, which include threats of sexual aggression and death from the person who claimed to be holding Najarian captive.
*The following is an excerpt of the chat transcripts translated into English between Najarian’s nephew and an Azerbaijani captor: The screenshots are numbered by the original form they were documented.
Relative: Is Maral alive? Hello?
Azerbaijan: Yes, they were alive.
Relative: They were alive, or they are alive?
I don’t understand
Let them return.
Azerbaijan: They were alive? Why would I let them go?
Azerbaijan: What were they doing in Karabakh?
Relative: They went to Karabakh to collect their stuff from Shushi.
*The following is an excerpt of the transcribed chat translated into English version exchange between her sister Sossy Seferian and the Azerbaijani captor:
Relative: How come Maral’s phone ended up in your hand?
Azerbaijan: You don’t know it and you’re asking me?
Relative: I am asking you how did you get her phone?
Azerbaijan: She came and I took them as hostages.
Relative: Are they alive? Is Maral alive?
Relative: What are you saying? What did they do?
Azerbaijan: What were they doing here?
Relative: They wanted to collect their stuff
For God’s sake, have pity on them and let them return.
Azerbaijan: I let her go but she did not want to leave.
Relative: How come that she did not want?
Let her return. Let me hear her voice. Let me speak to Maral.
*End of Chat Excerpt
Najarian’s nephew said the messenger chat lasted approximately 40 minutes with long gaps between each reply. The messages raised even more questions for the family who were not sure if Najarian was still alive at that time and said they spent months agonizing whether she was being tortured or sexually assaulted while in captivity. Global-wide Armenian media and organizational campaigns began demanding answers once news broke out the pair traveling together may have been kidnapped.
“I was the one who told my sisters to move to Artsakh…Sometimes I think if I hadn’t told them to move there, Maral would still be safe.”
~Sossy Seferian, Maral’s sister
On February 1, the Government of the Republic of Armenia had submitted an Inter-State Application against Azerbaijan with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The ECHR was also the first to confirm Najarian was in Azerbaijan captivity. The Application claims Geneva Convention violations committed by Azerbaijan, which are backed by substantial evidence. One of the main issues raised was the protection of the rights of prisoners of war, including female civilians.
“Under international law, conflict-related sexual violence can be characterized as war crimes and crimes against humanity. Women have a heightened vulnerability to mental, physical, and sexual abuse during arrest, questioning and in prison. International standards, for instance, clearly stipulate that women should be separated from men, and in specific circumstances, the lack of attention to women’s gender-specific needs can be considered to amount to or evolve into cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” Sheila Paylan International Human Rights Lawyer and Former Legal/SGBV Advisor for the United Nations explained.
A Shattered Dream
A family of seven siblings, Sossy Seferian, along with Maral and Ani Najarian planned on moving out of Lebanon due to the country’s increasing economic instability. On August 1, 2019, the two sisters purchased their tickets to Armenia, while Seferian waited for them to settle first. Three days later, Beirut is rocked from a massive explosion at the port. Maral Najarian, a hairdresser living in Fanar right near the port, felt the fierce tremors of the blast. On August 25, Maral and Ani Najarian left Lebanon and a few weeks later they were able to obtain citizenship of Armenia.
They learned of the Artsakh resettlement program from the Office of Diaspora Affairs, which encourages Armenians to return and settle in their country of national origin. Seferian had already obtained her visa for herself and her family and was waiting on her sisters to settle in Artsakh before she joined them there.The two sisters finally repatriated to Artsakh in mid-September 2020, but as luck would have it just 10 days later the war broke out.
They were temporarily staying at a hotel in Berdzor while their permanent homes were still being prepared. As the war intensified and got closer to where they were, they returned to Yerevan. Berdzor is a city located in the Lachin District-a strategic corridor connecting Artsakh with Armenia. It’s now under the supervision of Russian peacekeepers as part of the ceasefire agreement.
“I was the one who told my sisters to move to Artsakh,” Seferian said, adding she encouraged her sisters to move there after finding out about the government program that offered housing and assistance to Diaspora Armenians. “I was also told it would be a good opportunity for me as a practical nurse. Sometimes I think if I hadn’t told them to move there, Maral would still be safe.”
For Maral Najarian moving to Armenia was supposed to be a dream come true. The two sisters even had plans to open a restaurant together featuring Lebanese cuisine. What happened instead are unimaginable turn of events.
“Maral is a very good cook, she makes so many delicious dishes and she was ready for a change from being a hairdresser. She and I moved to Armenia to start a new life, a peaceful life in our motherland. Then, like a nightmare she was kidnapped.” 
Shoghig Assadourian first heard the news about her lifelong friend’s disappearance on Thanksgiving morning when a mutual friend contacted her. Their 30-year friendship began when the two attended the Melkonian Educational Institute in Nicosia, Cyprus together until Najarian moved back to Lebanon. The last time they saw each other was in 2016 during one of Najarian’s US visits.
“ Maral is a really good person with a big heart,” Assadourian said. “She always kept in touch with friends and was even at my sister’s wedding. When I found out about what happened, my first thought was I wish I reached out to her more often during the war, but who could have imagined someone being kidnapped? ”
It has been nearly four months since the end of the Artsakh war, but there are reportedly still war crimes continuing against Armenians by Azerbaijan. There are still some 1,600 Armenian civilians and military personnel still missing, which include more than 250 remaining hostages and detainees kidnapped after the brokered ceasefire.
Viken Euljekjian, who also has a dual citizenship of Lebanon and Armenia, was reportedly charged on December 2, 2020 with several crimes, including “terrorism” and “illegal border crossing”. The case was initiated by Azerbaijan’s State Security Office. If convicted, Euljekjian could face up to 47 years in prison. He volunteered to fight in the war but stayed in Artsakh for only two weeks, then returned to Yerevan.
“Why are there still Armenian prisoners of war in Azerbaijan? What is their fate? We are here in Armenia for months waiting for my aunt to come and we we don’t have any answers,” Najarian’s nephew directing these questions to the Armenian government while trying to make sense of it all.
Timeline of Events 2020: Leading Up to Najarian’s Kidnapping
· September 17: Maral and Ani Najarian repatriate to Artsakh.
· September 27: War: Azerbaijan launches a full scale attack on Artsakh
· At some point during the war, the sisters head back to Berdzor to collect more personal belongings since they had initially taken only a few essentials back with them. They return safely to Yerevan.
· On November 9: Najarian tells her sister Ani she is in Goris. That’s the last time they speak before the kidnapping.
· November 10: Najarian and Euljekjian leave an employee of the Berdzor hotel there and tell her they will come back for her on their way back from Shushi, but they never return.
· Berdzor hotel employee waits for them until dark and then takes a taxi back to Yerevan. Informs family the pair never came back to get her.
· At the time, Artsakh had no working phone lines or electricity.
· On November 10: Najarian and Euljekjian are kidnapped in Berdzor on their way to Shushi by Azerbaijani armed forces.
· November 11: Ani Najarian hadn’t heard from her sister by the next day, travels to Berdzor to look for her and Viken, but no sign of them.
· November 24: Najarian’s Facebook messenger appears to be online. Family learns then the pair have may have kidnapped by Azerbaijan armed forces, but alleged captor does not disclose location.
· European Court of Human Rights confirms Maral Najarian is being held captive and Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry confirms Maral Najarian was arrested, although a noncombatant.
 Zohrabyan quote translated Armenian to English
 Zohrabyan quote translated Armenian to English
 Ani Najarian quote translated from Armenian to English